Seminarians prep for diversity of parish cultures

In the dioceses of the United States, there is no such thing as cultural uniformity. This country remains a melting pot of countless cultures, and those men who are training to be the shepherds of these communities must be prepared for that cultural smorgasbord.

In the last several decades, there has been a well-documented demographic shift in the Catholic community of the United States. According to information provided by the Pew Research Center in 2015, 27 percent of Catholic adults in the United States were born outside the country, compared to 15 percent of adults overall. A majority of this percentage (which works out to 22 percent of all Catholics in the United States) are from elsewhere in the Americas.

Only 57 percent of Catholics in the United States were born in this country to two native-born parents, compared to 74 percent of Americans as a whole. Between 2007 and 2015, the percentage of Hispanic Catholics in the United States went from 29 percent to 34 percent. Demographic changes such as this mean that it is more important than ever that seminarians be prepared for the different cultures they will encounter as priests.

Full immersion

One diocese in particular that has instituted some very effective programs to prepare their seminarians for this cultural diversity is the Archdiocese of Seattle. In order to assist the seminarians in being able to effectively minister to the Hispanic community, the archdiocese has instituted an immersion program that sends the men to Mexico, Costa Rica and other locations.

Brody Stewart, who is entering his first year of theology at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon, recently returned from eight weeks in Puebla, Mexico. He had never studied Spanish before entering into this intensive immersion program. “I arrived in Puebla basically at square one,” he said.

The program had a profound effect on Stewart. It was not simply a Spanish language lesson, or even simply a means to familiarize himself with Mexican culture. He is still a seminarian preparing for priesthood, so these elements were combined with his regular spiritual and educational pursuits.

“The program was fantastic,” he said. “Each day began with four hours of class, followed by two hours of conversation with a dedicated guide in downtown Puebla.” At the end of each day, he would return to his host family to have dinner, share in conversation and settle down for personal prayer and study.

Stewart feels that the experience did a great deal to prepare him for future ministry. Attending Mass every morning in the Puebla Cathedral, he became very familiar with the Mass in Spanish. “More than that, though, my immersion enabled me to feel comfortable carrying on simple Spanish conversations,” he said. “I imagine this will be incredibly helpful for when I eventually (God-willing) have to hear confessions, deliver homilies or simply talk with those I am called to love and serve.”

Going out in twos

Brody Stewart (left) and Michael Barbarossa overlook the city of Cholula, Mexico. Courtesy photo

During his time in Puebla, Stewart was paired up with a fellow seminarian who had no prior Spanish experience. Michael Barbarossa, who is entering his first year of theology at Mundelein Seminary in Chicago, studied Latin in high school and again in college, but had little-to-no experience with Spanish. He said that the Latin “helped greatly with the grammar and vocabulary of Spanish; but especially in regards to conversation, I arrived without even the common phrases that many people remember from their high school studies.” His experience in Puebla would turn out to be incredibly fruitful.

While not the most comfortable experience — particularly in the first few weeks, where expressing himself and understanding even simple conversations was a great challenge — Barbarossa came to see that the resulting frustration was necessary for “jump-starting the brain.”

The men studied at the Spanish Institute of Puebla, about two hours outside of Mexico City. Each morning, they spent four hours in small-group classes with three or four people in a class, followed by two hours of individual conversation classes with a guide. They were also encouraged to explore the city with their guide in the afternoons. Staying with host families, the men were able to receive “language reinforcement and additional conversation at home.”

“Both my experience and the stories of seminarians who attended before me showed that the institute is very successful in their method of teaching,” Barbarossa said. “The institute also successfully focused on giving us a cultural immersion. I learned that there truly is a distinction between being bilingual and being bicultural.”

Internalized lessons

The cultural preparation offered by this program of the Archdiocese of Seattle proved to be a very educational experience. “I learned a lot about myself through my time in immersion,” Barbarossa said. “I came to understand more the methods of learning that work for me and those that don’t; I became comfortable with not knowing everything about a skill before using it; and I learned about how to adapt my spiritual life (especially prayer routines) for a completely different culture.”

The men also were allowed to consider the unique challenges and blessings of the Catholic Church in Mexico. “Whereas our New Evangelization in the United States is about re-evangelizing those who have fallen away from the Faith or who have never encountered Christ,” Barbarossa said, “in Mexico, there is a great need for ways to sustain and adapt a cultural Catholicism that is already present (arguably more present in society) but less internalized individually for the people.”

The seminarians deeply appreciated the opportunity to meet people where they were, in their own culture. “The other experience that really impressed me was how people’s personality, sense of humor and hearts really came alive when I could understand them in their own language,” Barbarossa said.

“I think it gave me good seeds for future ministry.”

Paul Senz writes from Oregon.

Multicultural realities in U.S. parishes
A 2016 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University identified a total of 6,332 parishes that are known to serve a particular racial, ethnic, cultural and/or linguistic community — or 35.9 percent of U.S. parishes. This included: